Reinvent MTA Transparency

July 18, 2014

In a series of letters and meetings over the last two years, Reinvent Albany and our colleagues in the NYC Transparency Working Group have been pushing the MTA to become more transparent through a slew of specific recommendations. Yesterday, Reinvent Albany asked the newly convened MTA Transportation Reinvention Commission (TRC), to recommend to the MTA that that agency “adopt transparency as a core value.”

Our testimony noted that the MTA’s public image and coffers have suffered from its historical lack of fiscal and spending transparency. When the public does not know how public money is being spent, it is less supportive of proving more funding. We outlined where the MTA needs to improve transparency, and how it can do so.

The MTA does not make available in a machine readable or “open data format” crucial information on:

  1. Their extensive real estate holdings, sales, purchases and leases.
  2. Details of professional fees, including legal and consulting services and bond underwriting.
  3. Contracts are in a 13,000 page pdf format that is difficult to use or analyze.
  4. Financial and budget briefings, voluminous documents converted from spreadsheets to non-usable pdf formats.
  5. Payments. State agencies report each payment online, the MTA does not.

The TRC’s next step will be to compile a report of recommendations to submit to the MTA so that the MTA can make the appropriate considerations for its Capital Plan which will be submitted to the Capital Program Review Board by October 1. We hope that the TRC will strongly recommend what we and other members of the NYC Transparency Working Group have been advocating for years – that the MTA make transparency one of their defining values.

 

Public Authorities Complaint Against Environmental Facilities Corporation

July 16, 2014

Reinvent Albany and other environmental and good government groups lodged a formal complaint against the Environmental Facilities Corporation today. The complaint asks the Authorities Budget Office to investigate the State Environmental Facilities Corporation for potential violations of the Public Authorities Reform Act it engaged in while fast tracking the approval of a $256m loan for the Thruway Authority to pay for Tappan Zee Bridge construction .  This is the first such action by Reinvent Albany, but we agree with our colleagues that the EFC appears to have blatantly violated its own rules and procedures.

1. The application for the loan to the Thruway was made months after the established deadline and went through no public review or comment period.

2. The Governor issued a press release announcing the approval of the loan ten days before the EFC board vote and three days before EFC board members recieved briefing materials.

3. The application was made on May 30, 2013 and the vote taken on June 26, 2014, but all required application documents were supposed to be received by February 3, 2014.

PARA Complaint vs EFC on Bridge Loan 7.16.12

Five Questions from Times-Union About Clean Water Raid

July 16, 2014

Reinvent Albany is part of a coalition of environmental and good government groups that opposes Governor Cuomo’s attempt to use State Clean Water State Revolving Fund money to pay for the construction of a new Tappan Zee Bridge. ( Reinvent Albany is involved as part of our ongoing advocacy to keep dedicated funds spent for their intended purpose. ) There have been eight newspaper editorials opposing or questioning the raid on Clean Water Funds. Today’s from the Albany Times Union calls on the state Public Authorities Board to ask five questions before approving the raid.

Times Union Editorial
July 16, 2014

THE ISSUE:
The Cuomo administration wants to borrow environmental funds to help build a bridge.

THE STAKES:
It’s fair to ask if this is an appropriate use of the money and how it will affect taxpayers and motorists.

The Cuomo administration had a flip response for Assemblyman Tom Abinanti when he dared question the use of $511 million in clean water funds to help pay for a replacement for the Tappan Zee Bridge. Rather than address the issue directly, a spokesman for the Thruway Authority declared that the Democrat from Greenburgh “must also be in favor of higher tolls.”

It was right up there with the sardonic “Why do you hate freedom?” retort that made the rounds during the Iraq War, when anyone who questioned the conflict — today widely viewed as an unnecessary and costly adventure — was subject to having their patriotism questioned. In this case, it’s a transparent attempt by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration and the Thruway Authority to change the subject — though, curiously, to another topic they don’t want to discuss, namely, bridge tolls.

Yet perhaps the administration will not be so contemptuous or evasive when it goes Wednesday before the state’s Public Authorities Control Board, which will consider whether the Environmental Facilities Corp. should loan more than a half-billion dollars to the Thruway Authority.

Here, then, are five questions a board that is supposed to be looking out for the public’s interest should demand answers to:

1. Is this what the Environmental Facilities Corp. is for? The EFC normally deals with such things as clean water and drinking water projects, solid waste disposal, and sewage treatment. While the state says the funding would help the bridge project be more environmentally friendly, is loaning this money mainly to build a bridge in line with EFC’s mission?

2. Would this loan endanger federal funds? The EFC depends on annual federal grants. The state has been trying to persuade the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that, with a more than $600 million surplus on hand because communities haven’t been borrowing the money, this is a good use for the unspent money.

3. Why aren’t communities tapping these funds? Is it just the current economic climate and tight budgets? Or has the state made it more difficult to get EFC funds? Have state policies forced communities to tighten their belts so much that they can’t take on even no-interest loans for much-needed pollution projects?

4. Where is the money coming from to repay the loan? Any lender would insist on knowing this.

5. How will this affect tolls or taxes? The Cuomo administration and the Thruway Authority say this will keep tolls down, but they refuse to show hard numbers. What would the bridge tolls be, with and without the funding? How might tolls or even taxes figure in?

If cogent, comprehensive answers aren’t forthcoming from the administration, the EFC, and the authority, here’s one more entirely fair question to ask: Why do you hate sunshine?

Editorials Blast Cuomo Raid on Clean Water Funds

July 11, 2014

Governor Cuomo’s recent efforts to use $511 million in Clean Water funds to build a new Tappan Zee Bridge has been blasted in seven newspaper editorials, as well as by a coalition of environmental and good government groups that includes Reinvent Albany.  The low and zero interest Clean Water State Revolving Fund financing was created under the federal Clean Water Act to pay for new and improved sewer treatment plants. ( A 2008 state report says cities and towns will have to spend $1.8 billion a year for the next two decades to replace aging and deteriorating waste water infrastructure.)

Unfortunately, Governor Cuomo intends to use the clean water funds to tear down the old TZ Bridge and other construction tasks associated with the $3.9 billion bridge replacement project. It is not the finest moment for a governor who vowed to end fiscal gimmickry. Particularly disturbing is that if Cuomo succeeds in taking — mainly federal — clean water funds for a bridge project, he will open the door for other governors to do the same.

Editorials Opposing Clean Water Fund Raid

New York Times 6/24/2014 “The proposal…clearly seems at odds with the revolving fund’s historic mission.”
Journal News 6/27/2014 “The latest betrayal of repeated promises of transparency.”
Times Union 6/30/2014 “Concern that this is bad precedent…why is all this money is sitting around to begin with?”
Watertown Daily Times 7/8/2014 “Gov. Cuomo could be shortchanging vital water improvement projects.”
Register Star 7/9/2014 “A half-billion dollars is a huge chunk of change to remove from this fund.”
Poughkeepsie Journal 7/10/2014 “The state needs a clear, unambiguous and transparent funding path.”
Times Herald Record 7/10/2014 “Rules (limiting spending to clean water) are being distorted beyond recognition.”
Times Union Column 7/7/2014 “Every aspect of this so-called loan is high chutzpah…”
Buffalo News 7/14/2014 “This questionable loan has had virtually no public input and no serious vetting.”

Money in Politics in NY: Jul. 11 Edition

July 11, 2014

State Sen. Libous Facing Charges of Lying to Prosecutors

New York State Senator Thomas Libous, a 13-term incumbent representing Binghamton, was arraigned in federal court last Tuesday for allegedly making false statements to the FBI. Federal prosecutors claim that Libous lied about using his influence as a state senator to boost his son’s salary at a Westchester law firm. Libous and his son, Matthew, have pleaded not guilty to the charges. The indictment states that the elder Libous arranged for an Albany lobbying firm to pay $50,000 to the law firm where his son was employed, in order to inflate his son’s salary.

He “took advantage of his position as senator and chairman of the Transportation Committee by corruptly causing lobbyists, who wanted Libous’ influence to benefit their clients, to funnel money through a law firm to his son,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara explained. When questioned by prosecutors regarding these charges, Libous denied involvement in any deal between the lobbying firm and the law firm, according to the indictment. Matthew Libous is being simultaneously accused of tax evasion. If the senator is convicted, it would increase the number of Albany legislators that have been forced out of office due to misconduct since 2000 to 27. Read more…